Frontier Status Report

Frontier Status Report #1

Frontier Status Report #1

June 5, 1996

Dale M. Gray

In an attempt to chronicle the rapidly emerging space frontier, I have decided to start posting my observations on relevant developments. My postings will seek to identify events and developments contributing to or hindering space development. I plan to list events and then comment on their perceived significance.

While 1996 has been characterized as the year the LEO space frontier ignited, the first week of June has not been a good one in terms of expanding the frontier.

Foremost news is the failure and destruction of the Ariane 5 rocket. Early reports place guidance at fault. Rated at 10 time the lifting capacity of the Ariane 4, the rocket was to be the next generation of space craft for the ESA. Frontiers are risky places. Failure is far more common than success. The greater the advance, the greater the risk. The ESA reaction to the failure will be closely watched.

Boeing has backed out of the X-33 program. The company has decided to offer its services to whoever wins the contract. This looks like gamesmanship to me. They know the risk in backing the wrong horse or have gotten wind of some show stopper on the team they were on. A hallmark of frontiers is the rapid realignment of major players with former enemies -- often combining forces to create greater chances of success or profit. Boeing's actions will be a useful weather vane for the coming months as the successor to the DC-XA is chosen.

The military has decided to replace its relatively few very large GEO observation platforms with a large swarm of LEO observation satellites each capable of only one task. A large number will be needed to provide the same scale of resolution provided by the big lenses of the GEO birds. This will also make it harder to eliminate observation platforms. The down side of this switch in strategies is that it will significantly reduce pressure for larger launch systems. The military will also begin buying communication capability from commercial sources for non-critical communication. This will do much to increase the flow of money into the LEO frontier, but will do little for creation of a GEO frontier. However, the military is increasingly realizing one of its prime tasks for protection of the US is protecting our commercial satellites. This attitude is similar to that which sent troops along the Oregon Trail to protect the immigrants.

The shuttle Endeavor has landed - -completing a mission that has four specific technology applications for the frontier. Two are well publicized 1) the inflation of a large antenna 2) the study of a passive stabilizing system in a satellite using ballast and magnetic rods. Both experiments are building on established knowledge. Of more interest perhaps was the experiment using growth hormone to offset space induced physiological deterioration in rats. This is an area that needs to be mastered before long-term occupation of space becomes measured in terms of life-spans. The last experiment of note was the placement of two Thermal protection systems near the tail of the orbiter. These 1.4 inch thick metal based pads are considerably lighter and more durable than the ceramic system currently in place on the shuttle. The experiment is part of the X-33 development program.

Perhaps the greatest news of the week is the announced plans to fly the DC-Xa for a second time on June 7. This comes in the wake of a strange ground fire that scorched the experimental craft on its first 1996 flight. Damage to the craft did not significantly delay preparations for the second flight. The resilience of the craft is also being shown in that a possible third flight may also occur some 8 hours after the second.

Finally, the advent of the frontier has been officially published in Aviation Week and Space Technology. Joseph Anselmo has reported "NEW SATELLITE USES SPUR SPACE BOOM" The article details the rapid advances in the space industry and reports the range of activities contributing to the boom. Lead in his arguments is that of Hughes Satellite which is the world's leader in satellite manufacturing. Of its 25 satellites to be constructed this year, only three are for government agencies. It has become leaner and faster in its manufacturing to respond to the moneyed demands of its free market clients. Lowering costs is creating the potential for even greater markets such as GPS units installed in automobiles.

Feel free to comment on my observations. Your perspective may have seen things that I have overlooked. Or more importantly, I may have incorrectly identified and commented on some development. Since this will be going into my Frontier research, it is important that my screw-ups are caught as quickly as possible and corrected. I will probably be posting additional status reports on a weekly basis on Tuesday following the posting of the AW&ST magazine.

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